South Koreans might have been enjoying some warm, pleasant, sunny days this June. But it won’t be long before the country is drenched by the annual rainstorms that seem to last for days at a time. And, as the rain melds with the soaring summer temperatures to create a stifling humidity, the government is hoping the monsoon rains that sweep in for most of July will wash away some of its growing political problems.
University students have been turning out daily to protest over having to fork out about $8,000 a year in tuition fees. The country has a long history of student protests, many of which have taken place ahead of the monsoon season. The democracy protests of 1987 and the 2008 protests against US beef imports, for example, both took place under June sunshine.
This time, South Korea’s students are hoping they can force President Lee Myung-bak to honour a 2007 election campaign promise to halve tuition fees in what is being seen as the latest phase in a sustained backlash against the South Korean elite, a backlash being stoked by rising inflation and growing inequality.
The most grating issue for many isn’t the expense of university, but the poor quality of the education being provided. South Korean universities invest relatively small sums in students, with universities here spending $8,920 on each student, compared with the OECD average of $12,907.
Yoon Yong-jin, a fourth year computer engineering student at Sejong University in Seoul, speaks for many when he complains about his experience there. ‘During my four years I think the quality of my education wasn’t good,’ he says. ‘I’m not satisfied with it. In the library there’s only one elevator. I don't know where my tuition fees have gone. The school is dirty; I wish they would hire someone to clean it up.’
South Korea’s higher education landscape is dominated by the so-called SKY schools: Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei Universities. All located in Seoul, they are by far the most prestigious and exclusive in the country, have the best resources for students and provide the best chance of finding a good job after graduation. Students who miss out in the vigorous competition for a place at an SKY school have a much tougher time finding work after graduating.
‘My student experience was very good, but the education in some universities can be bad. All the resources are focused in Seoul,’ says Kim Do-ah, a recent graduate of Korea University now working for a consulting firm in Seoul. ‘The students who study outside may get jobs, but the quality of those jobs won’t be as good as they hope. The students who go to the top three schools can get the jobs they want, but it’s much harder for students from smaller schools.’
The lack of investment is highlighted by a range of statistics, including the professor-student ratio, which is currently 32.7 students per professor in South Korea – more than twice the OECD average of 15.8.
The quality of those professors that are hired, meanwhile, frequently comes in for criticism. ‘The professors don't care if the students understand or not. My teacher is a kind of Kim Jong-il in his style of teaching; he speaks a lot and that’s all,’ Yoon says. ‘We can’t ask about anything if we are curious. I wonder why my university hires those kinds of professors.’
Disillusioned, some South Koreans are going abroad to study. Bae Na-min, a second year student, says: ‘Students in Korea need to study all day then go to academies until midnight to try to get into good universities because they are so competitive. But once they get there the quality isn’t that good. Korean universities aren’t really recognized internationally. It makes more sense to study in English because that will prepare me to work outside of Korea.’
For the past week, both political parties have been holding meetings with students, academics and officials from various ministries, but little progress has been made. The opposition Democratic Party is suggesting a larger tuition cut than the ruling Grand National Party, which has argued for the introduction of a contribution preference admission system, which is described by critics as simply paying for the right to enter a chosen university. It’s an unpopular idea in a country that has grown increasingly concerned by rising inequality.
No one expects the debate over tuition – and the larger battle over the direction of the country – to be settled anytime soon, least of all the country’s students.
‘We’ll keep fighting,’ said one third year Joongang University student last week at a protest in Seoul. ‘It’s a nice time to be outside.’
Steven Borowiec is a South Korea-based writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Toronto Star and Asia Sentinel, among other publications.